A+E Networks’ Sean Cohan

A+E Networks is home to some of the most popular brands in media, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Its 70-plus branded-channel feeds, including HISTORY, A&E, Lifetime and Crime + Investigation, reach 225 million-plus households in more than 200 territories. As linear and nonlinear destinations, these brands offer the best programming from the U.S. as well as locally produced shows.

Sean Cohan, the president of international and digital media at A+E Networks, not only oversees these channels, but also the worldwide distribution of a 16,000-hour library, which includes factual shows and formats, dramas and TV movies. Among recent titles are Knightfall, UnREAL, SIX and Live PD.

He is also responsible for digital media initiatives across the company, from video content to apps, websites to social media. 2016 saw the opening of the digital studio 45th & Dean, which is tasked with producing content for multiple platforms in an effort to reach viewers who don’t watch linear television.

Cohan is passionate about ensuring that A+E Networks’ brands remain relevant to audiences and help spark conversations around topics that are important to viewers, whether it’s HISTORY providing context to events in the news, or Lifetime offering a forum for women’s issues. Key to maintaining relevance is ensuring that the brands’ storytelling, whether in scripted or unscripted programming, reflects the diversity of the audience.

Cohan met with World Screen in his midtown Manhattan office and talked about diversity in front of and behind the camera, curating brands and tailoring them to local audiences and creating linear and digital-first content and deploying it effectively.

WS: We’ve all been hearing people talk about the demise of the linear channel business. From your perspective of the international market, what is the health of the linear business?
COHAN: There are 200 different markets, and they all have very different characteristics and are at different stages of development. Nonetheless, the business is healthy at the core because people are consuming as much or more video than they were yesterday. It’s healthy because in a lot of markets outside the U.S., there is still strong economic growth and therefore more ad dollars. There are more subscribers because of the growth in the middle class in many countries.

So, the near-term demise of the international linear business is greatly exaggerated! The flip side is, the world is changing. In the U.S. it’s obvious there is a fragmentation of viewership between pay TV, SVOD and online video. The ad model is also evolving. All these big shifts are presenting some uncertainty in the U.S. business; however, at A+E Networks we are immersed in some highly innovative ad models, targeted data and multiscreen attribution that are taking hold and all of this speaks to the fact that linear channels are not going anywhere. Five years from now there are going to be linear channels.

WS: How is the concept of brand evolving in this environment?
COHAN: I fundamentally believe that in a very crowded content landscape, where there is so much noise, brands are a key part of the discovery of content. Brands are one part road sign in a labyrinth of roads and one part stamp of quality. They are both a navigational tool and an imprimatur and can have a great deal of value. In particular, if you can convey to a consumer/user/viewer what a brand stands for and create clear expectations of what they are going to find at that road sign/stamp, brands are increasingly valuable. Like everyone, we are a work in progress on that, but we do feel that a brand like HISTORY has a leg up as the landscape evolves. HISTORY has clarity and recognition that make it stand out.

With strong brands, storytelling capabilities and content that plays well across platforms, and with an eye toward creating for different audiences across platforms, we feel we are well positioned for success in this evolving world.

WS: And HISTORY means the same thing in most markets?
COHAN: We’ve always allowed for brands like HISTORY to adapt to cultural conditions in each market. That said, I think HISTORY is pretty universal. It has evolved over time. At its core, it means the same thing, and the audience for it, in most places, is remarkably consistent—it’s male, AB, educated and from 20 to 50 years old, a broad range because core demographics can vary widely across different markets.

A strong brand today is culturally relevant and ascendant, something that is connected with or sparking what people are talking about. At a time like this, when a lot of news stories at home and globally are rancorous at best, HISTORY is not a news source, but it is a dependable, credible brand that provides context around the news.

WS: Has Lifetime required more adaptation than HISTORY?
COHAN: Great storytelling travels. We’ve always believed in having local and regional relevance across our brands. With Lifetime, you have to take special care to fashion it for a local audience. Especially outside the linear channel, when you’re talking to women in certain territories on social media, on our own platforms or third-party platforms, the voice has obviously got to be different.

WS: When you launch a channel, do you plan the linear and nonlinear components even before launching?
COHAN: Yes. We launched HISTORY and Lifetime in Korea in October, and our launches there speak to the unique challenges and opportunities that you have [today]. First, when you have been doing this for as long as A+E has, you’ve got a good library to think through what will resonate most to start with. But you also understand that in a place like Korea, there is a production community that produces at a very high level and [an audience with] a very strong expectation for local and regional content and so much storytelling talent available to you. You have digital platforms to tell stories that aren’t 45 minutes or an hour long. The other thing that is delightful is the portability of Korean content; the strength of the production community allows you to produce for that market, but you also could be producing for the rest of Asia or Latin America or Europe.

In a market where you have nearly 100-percent pay-TV penetration, extremely high broadband penetration and tremendous on-demand and social-media offerings, you almost have the mandate to be digital from scratch. You’ve got to have content on digital. You have to think about digital audiences and extensions. You have to do it all from the beginning.

It’s the same thing with local. You cannot launch and say, I’ll have a little bit of local programming. If you are going to be a Korean HISTORY channel or Korean Lifetime that is culturally ascendant and culturally relevant, you’ve got to be local, and you’ve got to be digital. You need people who know what telling stories across platforms means and have done it for a living. To that end, our general manager, Youngsun Soh, previously was the market director of Twitter in Korea.

WS: The digital studio 45th & Dean recently produced for Snapchat and Facebook. Do you need to be in a lot of places beyond the TV screen?
COHAN: Yes, and you need to be in those places not as a redeployment of the same content. You need to understand the platforms that are available, who is using them and why, and then deliver to their needs. One part of what 45th & Dean has been doing is producing short-form content expressly for platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat. We feel, at the least, it’s strategic learning, and in the case of Snapchat, we’re speaking to a different audience than we would typically speak to on our linear air or even on our own sites. So there is value in the learning and there is strategic value in being a preferred partner to platforms that we see as continuing to be relevant to large audiences. That’s been exciting. Bae or Bail did quite well on Facebook; since launch, the first episode has attracted over 40 million viewers. Second Chance did quite well on Snapchat with over 80 million tuning in to the first season.

Here’s the key: not every video is going to pop like that. One of the things Nancy [Dubuc, A+E Networks’ president and CEO] has instilled, and I give her all the credit in the world, is this sense that if you’re not taking risks, you’re not doing it right. She said we would fail with some things and we’ll shutter them quickly. As we succeed with things, we’ll learn and build on them.

We still feel we have a great opportunity to do more digitally across platforms with HISTORY and Biography. Paul Cabana [the executive VP of Biography and History Digital] has represented a real breath of fresh air and has built a strong slate of video. He and Tiffanie Darke, the editor in chief of HISTORY and A&E, have developed a great slate of short-form video, articles and podcasts. It’s important for these brands to have voices that go far beyond linear and offer context around the news.

WS: Are you looking to set up digital studios around the world?
COHAN: We’re seeing an opportunity to extend our digital activity [and set up] hubs. We are producing a significant amount of local short-form content, which in a lot of cases won’t make it to linear air, but we’re using it to establish a voice for the brand across social platforms. For example, we recently launched hubs in Asia and Africa and are looking at one or two more places. [These hubs represent how we’re] dedicating resources and people to telling stories that are meant for audiences on other platforms.

WS: Is the large amount of drama in the market hurting unscripted programming?
COHAN: There certainly is a lot of attention on scripted. I’ve looked at the volume over the last five or six years of both scripted and unscripted in the U.S. Scripted has exploded, with estimates ranging from 450 to 540 series [in development or production]. In unscripted, there was an explosion in volume in 2011 to 2014. Then in 2015 to 2017, the volume declined between 5 percent and 10 percent a year. In production, there has been a subtle shift away from unscripted. Then when you think about the buying community outside the U.S., you would have to say attention is a little bit diverted toward scripted. However, I think some of that has to do with fewer factual hits emerging. There was a period when there were a lot of mass-audience unscripted shows popping up; not as frequent today. Brent Montgomery [the CEO of ITV America and creator of Pawn Stars] has said it’s a question of unscripted programming’s continuing need to innovate and reinvent itself. Unscripted storytelling isn’t going anywhere.

In fact, we have been on a great uptick in the last year. A+E Networks is having a bit of a renaissance. We have launched innovative series that have been greatly resonating with our audiences. Live PD is, in fact, a hit and we have a number of other shows, such as Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath and the Emmy-winning Born This Way, that have attained broad popular acclaim or critical acclaim.

A+E Networks has an advantage of being strong in both scripted and unscripted and part of the challenge of international is trying to figure out what’s happening with buyers’ budgets and consumer appetites. The diversity of what we produce does allow a bit of risk management for us. We have a strong slate of TV movies, a strong library and we produce scripted through A+E Studios, which gives us global rights. As long as you do it well, like UnREAL that critically stands out, or Knightfall or SIX, you’re good. And with mega docs to reality programming, we are probably insulated somewhat from genre pendulum swings by the mere diversity of what we produce.

WS: And diversity in the other sense—how is it good for business?
COHAN: First off, we have a diverse audience. So whether it’s creators or imagery or cast or anyone involved in the process of making great stories, we can’t help but think that the infusion of diversity of all types in every part of the process is going to be helpful in resonating with a diverse audience. Secondly, the best stories today are inevitably the most different, unusual and unexpected. They come increasingly from places you haven’t gone to before. Our best-rated movies on Lifetime are those that have been directed and written by women and have female protagonists. Not only is it good business for us to have women behind and in front of the camera because we are talking to women, but because that community hasn’t been tapped enough by Hollywood and the conventional industry, you’re going to find more unexpected, different and unique stories. Why is it that some of the more acclaimed stories of the last year have come from people of color? Hollywood and convention haven’t turned to those communities before. We’re working on it and are actively searching for those stories, but given recent events and disclosures, we as a society and as an industry still have a long way to go toward inclusion and tolerance and celebration of diversity.

There are very few people of color in our business in senior roles, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t promote the importance of this as a value to drive better business results. It’s unfortunate that we are still talking about it. That is sometimes discouraging for a lot of us. But we’re all working hard to make the right outcomes happen.